Space tourists: Wait for next seat could be long
Charles Simonyi returned to Earth Wednesday. It was the last trip on which nonastronauts could hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
American billionaire Charles Simonyi may be the last tourist to ride a Soyuz rocket into space for the next few years.Skip to next paragraph
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High-end space tourism – the kind where you spend $35 million for two weeks at the International Space Station (ISS) – is now on hiatus.
Why? There's no more room in the ISS inn.
When the space station's crew size doubles later this year, no seats will be available for deep-pocketed adventurers, who currently hitch a ride on the Russian spacecraft that also carry working astronauts to the station.
Mr. Simonyi, who landed early Wednesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan, earned his fortune as a lead software developer at Microsoft Corp. He is the first to make the trip twice and one of only six nonastronauts to enter space. His first trip in 2007 cost $25 million.
"I am flying so close to my first flight because I can still use the experience of my previous flight," Simonyi said at a news conference in March, adding that this trip would be his last. During the tough times of the global financial crisis, Simonyi says he supports space exploration by pouring his own money into the space industry.
Simonyi blasted off March 26 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two crew members, Russian cosmonaut Gennadiy Padalka and American astronaut Michael Barratt. He took the only route available to space tourists: making a reservation for the Soyuz through US-based Space Adventures Ltd.
But the Soyuz is a one-time-use ship that can hold only three people. When the ISS crew goes up to six members from three, delivering the entire crew to the ISS will take two trips at capacity. There simply will be no seats for tourists, even those with $35 million to burn.
The seats that have been used by tourists will be taken by American astronauts. Last December, NASA signed a $141 million contract with the Russian Space Agency to send three ISS crew members on two Soyuz vehicles in 2011. And the number of seats booked by NASA probably will grow because the main transport used by US astronauts, the space shuttle, will be retired next year.
The new US shuttle, Orion, and its carrier rocket, Ares, are still under construction. Orion's first flight is expected in 2015.